Over this past month, when the surprising news broke of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro Alexander Mickelthwate’s planned departure to lead the Oklahoma Philharmonic in September 2018, I’ve heard all kinds of comments. Everyone seems to have an opinion, including my esteemed colleague Gordon Sinclair Jr., as well as you, our loyal readers and concertgoers — and naturally, so do I.
Over the past 12 years of his tenure, I’ve spent about a gazillion hours previewing, reviewing, interviewing and attending countless media events hosted by the German-born conductor, including hitting the road with him and his merry band of musicians in May 2014 for Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival. Heck, I even reviewed his first WSO concert in April 2005, when he parachuted in for an unavailable William Eddins that led to his current appointment in September 2006. Remember all of those comparisons to Kevin Bacon?
Some of the criticisms I’ve heard are of the musical kind, as they should be. Like many of you, I’ve had my own qualms about some of his tempi, in which some of the classics suddenly have morphed into either lugubrious, or hurtling, pell-mell versions of their former selves.
Some programming choices have been... dubious. However, I gladly took the heat when the maestro led the Canadian première of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 11 during the 2014 Winnipeg New Music Festival, which clearly touched a raw nerve with listeners (and WSO members). While likely not a work for the proverbial desert island, this daring choice allowed Mickelthwate to tap into the riskier, boundary-pushing spirit of the earliest festivals.
His spearheading of the internationally renowned festival with its past curators and composers-in-residences for the past dozen years is, I feel, his greatest mark.
It’s not always the case having a music director live in the same community, and Mickelthwate’s unflagging championing of our arts community has been unparalleled. He was quite rightfully given a shout-out by Mayor Brian Bowman at this month’s Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts. It also came as no surprise when he planted his family roots into Winnipeg soil in 2007 as, notably, the WSO’s first resident music director since 2000.
"The whole point of being a conductor in North America is to create a relationship with the audience," he once told now-retired Free Press arts journalist Morley Walker in July 2006. And indeed he has, from his bubbling enthusiasm hosting Classic 107 FM’s now-defunct 60 Minutes with the WSO, or his staunch advocacy of the WSO’s Sistema Winnipeg inner-city program, or performing in local high schools each year, or touring regularly to Brandon... the list goes on and on.
I’ve heard of sightings of the maestro studying orchestral scores during his sons’ hockey practices and personally delivering a gift of marzipan to WSO principal horn Patricia Evans after she broke her ankle (coincidentally, the same day as my own ankle injury on Nov. 11, 2014) that I believe reflects a sincere caring for his artists.
I’m a freelance writer constantly in hot pursuit of pithy sound bites and snappy press quotes; Mickelthwate’s door always has swung wide open — and particularly when the witching hour of a copy deadline is fast approaching.
I’m not 100 per cent convinced it would be the same with others, although hope springs eternal.
It’s worth noting that what you see in print is often (usually) only the tip of the iceberg. Over the years, the maestro and I have had many thought-provoking conversations about contemporary art, conducting challenges, spirituality and music, as well as — my personal favourite — inherent differences (or not) between works written by male and female composers (we shared a panel talk dealing with this during the last new music fest). It’s been fascinating chatting one-on-one with him and being given an inside track to the alchemic process of blending 67 individual players into one organic whole.
We also spoke this past fast fall about the nail-biting pressures of conducting such a high-profile artist as superstar violinist Joshua Bell — and with only one rehearsal (His answer? Easy, because Bell knew precisely what he wanted). For all of this, I am grateful.
I don’t know all the politics of the situation, nor do I wish to. These things often can get messy, although regular "clear-cutting" in the modern symphonic forest comes with the territory. It’s an inherent part of the ecosystem, and fresh blood and a bold, new artistic vision is crucial for the success of any organization — as painful as it is to let go, at times.
Truthfully, it’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, there will be controversy — and that’s OK. Mickelthwate also told Walker in 2007, referring then to his concert programming, "I don’t mind if people react negatively to some of my choices. I don’t want to alienate them but I do want them to react. I want to be in a conversation." And so with this latest brouhaha, in which we’ve heard of gag orders, leaks, potential rot and lame-duck seasons and so forth, music lovers have been debating these issues passionately, with the zeal of the newly converted.
Ultimately, this all boils down to "legacy," and the inestimable impact that this conductor from Germany — who we’ve gotten to know so well over the past 12 years — has had on "our" Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The WSO has been deeply embedded in our rich arts community for 70 years, and it’s entirely fitting that Mickelthwate will be leading its official birthday party on Wednesday at the Centennial Concert Hall at 7 p.m.
In fact, Mickelthwate has succeeded by creating that critical, vibrant and engaged conversation — at the core of any sustained growth, with its power to shake up the status quo — that is the only means of survival for arts organizations today and the antidote to the perils of complacency.
I remember like it was yesterday when one of his more notable predecessors, Bramwell Tovey, left the WSO in 2000 to helm the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
The highlight of his tribute evening saw a packed house crooning Red River Valley as a surprise.
While I’m not sure that we’ll all be belting out Oklahoma! in one year’s time, I’d like to propose an alternative when the day eventually comes to wish Mickelthwate, his U.S.-born fashion designer wife Abigail Camp, and their two growing sons, Jack, 13, and Jacob, 9, a fond "auf Wiedersehen": Thanks for the memories — and bravo.